Showing posts with label World. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World. Show all posts

Strong data lifts Wall Street, trumps sequester fears

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged higher on Friday as strong economic figures more than offset growth concerns out of China and Europe and as investors shrugged off expected across-the-board U.S. goverment spending cuts.

Stocks opened sharply lower as Asian factories slowed and European output fell, but most of the losses disappeared after a report showed U.S. manufacturing activity expanded last month at its fastest clip in 20 months.

U.S. consumer confidence also rose in February as Americans turned more optimistic about the job market.

With government budget cuts set to begin on Friday, President Barack Obama blamed Republicans for failure to reach a compromise to avert the cuts, known as sequester. Investors, who have had plenty of time to prepare, appeared not too worried about the immediate impact.

"Despite the headlines, the drama and the finger pointing, the U.S. economy can still expand and as long as you see expansion, (equity) markets can go higher," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.

Krosby said the market was also looking ahead to next week's government payrolls report. A stronger jobs market points to stronger consumer spending, an important component for economic growth. Separately, a government report on Friday said consumer spending rose in January as Americans spent more on services.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> rose 38.09 points or 0.27 percent, to 14,092.58, the S&P 500 <.spx> gained 3.4 points or 0.22 percent, to 1,518.08 and the Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> added 7.68 points or 0.24 percent, to 3,167.87.

For the week so far, the Dow is up 0.7 percent while the Nasdaq and S&P are up 0.2 percent.

Equities continue to attract investors in an environment of low interest rates due to an accommodative monetary policy. The Dow is less than 1 percent away from its all-time intraday high of 14,198.10. Declines have been shallow and short-lived, with investors jumping in to buy on dips.

Intuitive Surgical jumped 8.3 percent to $552.18 after Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Jeremy Feffer upgraded the stock, saying the more than 11 percent slide in the stock on Thursday was a gross overreaction to a news report.

Groupon Inc surged 9 percent to $4.94 a day after the online coupon company fired its chief executive officer in the wake of weak quarterly results.

Gap Inc rose 2.7 percent to $33.81 after reporting fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations and boosting its dividend by 20 percent, while Inc posted sales that beat forecasts, sending shares up 7.2 percent to $181.41.

Chesapeake Energy Corp fell 1.7 percent to $19.81 after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission escalated its investigation into the company and its Chief Executive Aubrey McClendon for a controversial perk that granted him a share in each of the natural gas producer's wells.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Wall Street drifts after two-day run, Dow record in sight

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged higher on Thursday with investors hard-pressed to lift indexes to multi-year highs despite strong economic data.

The U.S. economy ticked up in the fourth quarter, reversing an earlier estimate showing contraction, and a drop in new claims for unemployment benefits last week added to a string of data that suggests the economy improved early this year.

Still, the positive revision to GDP data was expected and the claims continue a trend that is baked into prices. The market lacks catalysts as it digests its recent move higher, according to Kevin Caron, market strategist at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park, New Jersey, where he helps oversee $120 billion in assets under management.

"That's why I think you're seeing a fairly listless trading environment today," Caron said.

The Dow was within striking distance of a record high after a more than 7 percent year-to-date run. The Dow transports index <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, is up almost 13 percent this year and hit a record intraday high Thursday before turning slightly negative.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> rose 14.79 points or 0.11 percent, to 14,090.16, the S&P 500 <.spx> gained 3.12 points or 0.21 percent, to 1,519.11 and the Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> added 9.13 points or 0.29 percent, to 3,171.39.

The Dow's intraday record, set October 11, 2007, stands at 14,198.10.

The S&P 500 has gained more than 2 percent in the past three sessions.

Equity markets suffered steep losses earlier in the week on concerns over the impact of an Italian election on the European economy, but bounced back on strong data and recent comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that showed continued support for the Fed's economic stimulus policy.

J.C. Penney Co Inc slumped 17.9 percent to $17.38 after the department store reported a steep drop in sales on Wednesday. Groupon Inc also slumped on weak revenue, with the stock off 20 percent at $4.76.

Cablevision shares tumbled nearly 10 percent after the cable provider took a $100 million hit on costs related to Superstorm Sandy and posted deeper video customer losses than expected.

Mylan Inc shares were on track to close at their highest ever after the generic drugmaker posted a 25 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit and said it will buy a unit of India's Strides Arcolab Ltd. Shares were last up 3.8 percent at $29.66.

Investors were keeping an eye on the debate in Washington over U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting Friday if lawmakers fail to reach agreement on spending and taxes. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders arranged last-ditch talks to prevent the cuts, but expectations were low that any deal would emerge.

With 93 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69.5 percent have beaten profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos, additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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S&P 500 rises more than 1 percent

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the original "Star Wars" trilogy, was briefly hospitalized due to her bipolar disorder, the actress' spokeswoman said on Tuesday after video emerged of Fisher giving an unusual stage performance. The video came from a show Fisher gave aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean last week, according to celebrity website TMZ, which posted the clip. The clip shows Fisher, 56, singing "Skylark" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," at times appearing to struggle to remember the lyrics. ...
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Dow, S&P rise as Bernanke defends policy, warns on cuts

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks mostly rose on Tuesday after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the Fed's bond-buying stimulus before Congress, but warned forced spending cuts that could be triggered this week represented a headwind for the economy.

Gains in homebuilders and other consumer stocks, following strong economic data, kept the S&P 500 nearly unchanged, while a 5 percent jump in Home Depot lifted the Dow industrials. The PHLX housing sector index <.hgx> rose 2 percent.

Stocks hit session highs shortly after Bernanke, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, strongly defended the Fed's bond-buying stimulus program that has been essential for the stock market's recovery.

However, he also urged lawmakers to avoid sharp spending cuts set to go into effect on Friday, which he warned could combine with earlier tax increases to create a "significant headwind" for the economic recovery.

"He really came down foursquare on the bearish camp with respect to the potential economic impact of these cuts. That's a surprise, and that's probably why the market's a little nervous right now," said Michael Jones, chief investment officer of Riverfront Investment Group in Richmond, Virginia.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> rose 74.64 points or 0.54 percent to 13,858.81. The S&P 500 <.spx> gained 1.78 points or 0.12 percent to 1,489.63. The Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> dropped 5.84 points or 0.19 percent to 3,110.41.

The S&P 500 failed to move above 1,500, a closely watched level that was technical support until recently, but could now become a hurdle.

Cable network AMC Networks was the Nasdaq's biggest percentage decliner after the home of popular shows such as "The Walking Dead" and "Mad Men" reported a quarterly profit way below analysts' estimates. Its stock fell 7.4 percent to $53.77.

Equities continued to be weighed by concerns about a stalemate in Italy after a general election failed to give any party a parliamentary majority, posing the threat of prolonged instability and European financial crisis.

The FTSEurofirst-300 index of top European shares <.fteu3> unofficially closed down 1.3 percent at 1,150.58. The benchmark Italian index <.ftmib> tumbled 4.9 percent.

Dow component Home Depot Inc was the top gainer in both the Dow and the S&P 500 after the world's largest home improvement chain reported adjusted earnings and sales that beat expectations. Home Depot's shares jumped 5.5 percent to $67.46.

Macy's Inc shares climbed 2.8 percent to $39.60 after the department-store chain stated it expects full-year earnings to be above analysts' forecasts because of strong holiday sales.

Economic reports that showed strength in housing and consumer confidence also supported stocks.

U.S. home prices rose more than expected in December, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index. Consumer confidence rebounded in February, jumping more than expected, and new-home sales rose to their highest in 4-1/2 years.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Sam Forgione; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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Dow, S&P slip after uncertain Italian election

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks mostly fell on Monday on fears that a divided parliament in Italy would get in the way of the country's reforms and hamper the euro zone's stability.

Election projections showed the center-right coalition led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was leading in the race for the Italian Senate, contradicting initial exit polls and raising the specter of deadlock in parliament.

Earlier polls pointing to a center-left victory lifted stocks in Milan and other European markets on investors' belief that they would continue the path to pay down Italian debt, said Art Hogan, managing director of Lazard Capital Markets in New York.

"What we don't want to hear is a renewed fear about a euro- zone fracture," he said.

Last week, the benchmark S&P 500 closed below its 14-day moving average on Wednesday for the first time this year. At midday, the S&P 500 was trading just below that level, now near 1,515.

The index was, nonetheless, still near highs not seen in five years, as bets on a strong U.S. economy have given equities support. The S&P 500's slight fall last week was the first weekly drop after a seven-week string of gains.

Banks and other financial stocks led Monday's decline on concern about the sector's exposure to Italy's massive debt. The KBW Bank Index <.bkx> fell 0.7 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> slipped 18.58 points or 0.13 percent, to 13,981.99. The Standard & Poor's 500 <.spx> shed 2.30 points or 0.15 percent, to 1,513.30. But the Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> rose 3.03 points or 0.10 percent, to 3,164.85.

Barnes & Noble Inc shares climbed 11.9 percent to $15.12 after the bookseller's chairman offered to buy its declining retail business.

The Nasdaq received support from Amgen Inc , up 4.2 percent at $90.47, after a rival issued a voluntary recall of its only drug, an anemia treatment that competes with Amgen's top-selling red blood cell booster, Epogen.

The FTSEurofirst-300 index of top European shares <.fteu3> unofficially closed up 0.1 percent and Italy's main FTSE MIB <.ftmib> ended up 0.7 percent after earlier gaining near 4 percent.

U.S. equities will face a test with the looming debate over the so-called sequestration, U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting on Friday if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement over spending and taxes. The White House issued warnings about the harm the cuts are likely to inflict on the economy if enacted.

With 83 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69 percent beat profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry and Jan Paschal)

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HP lifts Wall Street, S&P on pace for first weekly loss of year

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks rose on Friday, rebounding off two days of losses as Dow component Hewlett-Packard surged on strong results, but the S&P 500 was on track to end a seven-week-long streak of gains.

The S&P shed 1.9 percent over the previous two sessions, its worst two-day drop since early November, putting the index on pace for its first weekly decline of the year. The retreat was triggered when the Federal Reserve's meeting minutes for January suggested stimulus measures may be halted sooner than thought.

Still, the index is up nearly 6 percent for the year and held the 1,500 support level despite the recent declines, a sign of a positive bias in the market.

"The market is addicted to Fed stimulus and gets withdrawal shakes every time that's threatened, but now we're resuming our course and remain much more attractively valued than other asset classes," said Rex Macey, chief investment officer at Wilmington Trust in Atlanta, Georgia.

Hewlett-Packard Co jumped 9.6 percent to $18.74 as the top boost on both the Dow and S&P 500 after the PC maker's quarterly revenue and forecasts beat expectations. The company cut costs under Chief Executive Meg Whitman's turnaround plan. The S&P technology sector <.splrct> was up 0.8 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 69.41 points, or 0.50 percent, at 13,950.03. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 7.74 points, or 0.52 percent, at 1,510.16. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 18.26 points, or 0.58 percent, at 3,149.75.

For the week, the Dow is off 0.2 percent in its third straight week of slight losses, the S&P is off 0.6 percent and the Nasdaq is off 1.3 percent.

Also buoying tech stocks were gains in semiconductor companies after Marvell Technology Group Ltd forecast results this quarter that were largely above analysts' expectations. Marvell gained market share in the hard-disk drive and flash-storage businesses. The stock rose 2.5 percent to $9.71.

In addition, Texas Instruments Inc raised its dividend by a third and boosted its stock buyback program, lifting shares 5.1 percent to $34.16 while the PHLX semiconductor index <.sox> gained 1.8 percent.

"Dividends growing are another way the market's level is justified, if not especially attractive at these levels," said Macey, who manages about $20 billion in assets.

On the downside, Abercrombie & Fitch dropped 7.6 percent to $45.34 after the clothing retailer reported a drop in fourth-quarter comparable sales, even as its latest quarterly earnings topped estimates.

Insurer American International Group Inc posted fourth-quarter results that beat analysts' expectations. Shares advanced 3 percent to $38.43.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Friday morning, of 439 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Wall Street extends losses, Nasdaq down 1 percent

DEAR ABBY: My boyfriend, "Doug" (24), and I (22) have been in a long-distance relationship for a year, but we were friends for a couple of years before that. I had never had a serious relationship before and lacked experience. Doug has not only been in two other long-term relationships, but has had sex with more than 15 women. One of them is an amateur porn actress.I knew about this, but it didn't bother me until recently. Doug had a party, and while he was drunk he told one of his buddies -- in front of me -- that he should watch a certain porn film starring his ex-girlfriend. ...
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Wall Street dips after rally, energy shares weaker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks dipped on Wednesday, with energy shares falling as investors found few reasons to buy following a rally that has held major indexes near five-year highs for three weeks.

In addition, investors waited for the minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting due at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT) for clues to the interest rate outlook.

Traders said there were unconfirmed rumors in the market that a troubled hedge fund was selling assets.

"I heard the chatter about a hedge fund liquidating things today but how big, I don't know. Certainly it sparks concern," said Michael James, senior trader at Wedbush Morgan in Los Angeles.

A jump in January of permits for future home building offered hope the housing market's recovery remains on track. A separate report showed wholesale prices rose last month for the first time in four months.

The S&P 500 has jumped about 7 percent so far this year, and is on track for its eighth straight week of gains. However, many of those weekly gains have been slight, with equities trading within a narrow range for the past few weeks, suggesting valuations may be stretched at current levels.

"The market seems very tired and listless, and investors are prone to take profits now as they wait for the music to stop," said Matt McCormick, money manager at Bahl & Gaynor in Cincinnati.

Energy companies were among the weakest, hurt by disappointing corporate results and a 2.4 percent drop in crude oil prices.

Newfield Exploration fell 5.8 percent to $25.73 while Devon Energy Corp fell 1.6 percent to $59.60. Both companies posted fourth-quarter losses, with Devon hurt as it wrote down the value of its assets by $896 million due to weak natural gas prices.

Groundbreaking to build new U.S. homes fell 8.5 percent in January but new permits for construction rose to a 4 1/2-year high while producer prices rose in January for the first time in four months.

Investors will look to the minutes from the Fed's January meeting for any indication as to how long the Fed will keep buying $85 billion in bonds each month to bolster U.S. employment. Economic data should enable the Fed to maintain its easy monetary policy.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 16.03 points, or 0.11 percent, to 14,019.64. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> dropped 5.81 points, or 0.38 percent, to 1,525.13. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dropped 13.82 points, or 0.43 percent, to 3,199.77.

Shares of OfficeMax Inc fell 3.8 percent to $12.51 while Office Depot slumped 13 percent to $4.37 as the companies announced a $1.2 billion merger agreement. The shares had risen sharply earlier this week after a source said a deal would be announced. Rival Staples Inc fell 3.5 percent.

Toll Brothers Inc lost 4 percent to $35.43 after the largest luxury homebuilder in the United States, reported first-quarter results well below analysts' estimates.

The stock is up 9 percent so far this year, building on jump of nearly 60 percent in 2012.

"Valuations appear a bit high at these levels, and if I was in a name that had seen a huge run, I'd want to take some chips off the table," said McCormick, who helps oversee about $8.2 billion in assets.

SodaStream dropped 6.5 percent to $49.04 after the seller of home carbonated drink maker machines posted fourth-quarter earnings and provided a 2013 outlook.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Tuesday morning, of the 405 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 71 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.7 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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M&A deals lift shares, suggest more value in market

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose on Tuesday as merger activity suggested the market could offer investors still more value even as the S&P 500 and Dow industrials hover near five-year highs.

Equities have resisted a pullback as investors use dips in stocks as buying opportunities. The S&P is up about 7 percent so far in 2013 and has climbed for the past seven weeks in its longest weekly winning streak since January 2011, though most of the weekly gains have been slim.

Office Depot Inc surged 9.4 percent to $5, pulling back from earlier highs after a person familiar with the matter said the No. 2 U.S. office supply retailer was in advanced talks to merge with smaller rival OfficeMax Inc . A deal could come as early as this week.

OfficeMax jumped 20 percent to $12.94 while larger rival Staples Inc shot up 9.4 percent to $14.17 as the best performer on the S&P 500.

More than $158 billion in deals has been announced thus far in 2013. Last week, agreements included the acquisition of H.J. Heinz Co by Berkshire Hathaway , and the sale by General Electric of its remaining stake in NBCUniversal to Comcast Corp .

"Equity investors have to be encouraged by M&A since, if the number crunchers are offering large premiums, that shows how much value is still in the market," said Mike Gibbs, co-head of the equity advisory group at Raymond James in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 37.81 points, or 0.27 percent, at 14,019.57. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 6.84 points, or 0.45 percent, at 1,526.63. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 9.39 points, or 0.29 percent, at 3,201.42.

U.S. markets were closed on Monday for the Presidents Day holiday.

Health insurance stocks tumbled, led by a 7 percent drop in Humana Inc to $72.50 after the company said the government's proposed 2014 payment rates for Medicare Advantage participants were lower than expected and would hurt its profit outlook.

UnitedHealth Group lost 1.7 percent to $56.37the biggest drag on the Dow. The Morgan Stanley healthcare payor index <.hmo> dropped 1.6 percent.

Express Scripts rose 2.4 percent to $56.87 after the pharmacy benefits manager posted fourth-quarter earnings.

Wall Street's strong start to the year for was fueled by stronger-than-expected corporate earnings, as well as a compromise by legislators in Washington that temporarily averted automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that are predicted to damage the economy.

The compromise on across-the-board spending cuts postponed the matter until March 1, at which point the cuts take effect. Ahead of the debate over the cuts, known as sequestration, further gains for stocks may be difficult to come by.

"If there's no major contention with sequestration, it looks like stocks are prepared to handle it, but until then we'll probably stay in a consolidation period marked by sideways trading with a slow rate of ascent," said Gibbs.

Economic data showed the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market index unexpectedly edged down to 46 in February from 47 in the prior month as builders faced higher material costs.

According to the Thomson Reuters data through Monday morning, of the 391 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.1 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies have risen 5.6 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Kenneth Barry and Nick Zieminski)

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Yen resumes fall after G20, U.S. holiday thins trade

LONDON (Reuters) - The yen resumed falling on Monday after Japan signaled it would push ahead with expansionist monetary policies having escaped criticism from the world's 20 biggest economies at the weekend.

Industrial metals also dipped and European shares were soft on lingering worries about the economic outlook, especially for the euro zone. While the risk of an inconclusive outcome in Italy's forthcoming election added to investor concerns.

However, activity was curtailed by the closure of markets in the United States for the Presidents' Day holiday.

The yen, which has dropped 20 percent against the dollar since mid-November, fell further after financial leaders from the G20 promised not to devalue their currencies to boost exports and avoided singling out Japan for any direct criticism.

The dollar rose 0.5 percent to 93.95 yen, near a 33-month peak of 94.47 yen set a week ago. The euro added 0.3 percent to 125.40 yen, to be midway between Friday's two-week low of 122.90 and a 34-month high of 127.71 yen hit earlier this month.

Strategists said the yen was likely to stay weak, though its decline could lose momentum until it becomes clear who will be taking the helm at the Bank of Japan when the current governor steps down on March 19.

"The yen probably will weaken a little further in anticipation of more aggressive easing under a new leadership team at the Bank of Japan," said Julian Jessop, chief global economist at Capital Economics.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is poised to nominate the new governor in the next few days. Sources have told Reuters that former financial bureaucrat Toshiro Muto, considered likely to be less radical than other candidates, was leading the field.

Meanwhile the euro dipped slightly against the dollar when European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said the currency's recent gains made any rise in inflation less likely and added that he had yet to see any improvement in the euro zone economy.

Speaking before the European Parliament, Draghi said the euro's exchange rate was not a policy target but was important for growth and stability, adding that appreciation of the euro "is a risk".

The comments left the euro down 0.2 percent at $1.3334.

Elsewhere in the currency market, sterling hit a seven-month low against the dollar, after a key policymaker made comments about the need for further weakness and recent poor data which has kept alive worries of another British recession.

Sterling fell 0.25 percent to $1.5476 having earlier touched $1.5438, its lowest since July 13.


A big week for data on the outlook for the world's economy weighed on other riskier asset markets following the recent dire fourth-quarter growth numbers for the euro zone and Japan, along with Friday's soft U.S. manufacturing figures.

In European markets, attention is focused on the euro area Purchasing Managers' Indexes for February and German sentiment indices due later in the week which could affect hopes for a recovery this year.

Analysts expect Thursday's euro area flash PMI indices, which offer pointers to economic activity around six months out, to show growth stabilizing across the recession-hit region, leaving intact hopes for a recovery in the second half of 2013.

Concerns over an inconclusive outcome in the Italian election on Sunday and Monday have added to the weaker sentiment as a fragmented parliament could hamper a future government's efforts to reform the struggling economy.

The worries about the outlook for Italy were encouraging investors back into safe-haven German government bonds on Monday, with 10-year Bund yields easing 3.5 basis points to be around 1.63 percent.

"Political uncertainty will keep Bunds well bid this week," ING rate strategist Alessandro Giansanti said, adding that only better than expected economic data could create selling pressure on German debt in the near term.

Italian 10-year yields were 4 basis points higher on the day at 4.41 percent.


European equity markets were taking their lead from corporate earnings reports which have been reflecting the sluggish economic conditions across the region.

Danish brewer Carlsberg , which generates just over 60 percent of its sales in western Europe, became the latest to report a weaker-than-expected quarterly profit, sending its shares to their lowest level in almost a month.

The 5.8-percent drop for shares in the world's fourth biggest brewery helped send the FTSEurofirst 300 index <.fteu3> of top European shares down 0.2 percent. Germany's DAX <.gdaxi>, France's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Britain's FTSE-100 <.ftse> ranged between 0.4 percent up and 0.15 percent lower.

Earlier, the G20 statement and subsequent comment from Prime Minster Abe indicating a renewed drive to stimulate the Japanese economy lifted the Nikkei stock index <.n225> by 2.1 percent, near to its highest level since September 2008.

MSCI's world equity index <.miwd00000pus> was flat as markets extended a two-week period of consolidation that has followed the big run-up in January, when demand was buoyed by the efforts of central banks to stimulate the world economy.

Data from EPFR Global, a U.S.-based firm that tracks the flows and allocations of funds globally, shows investors pulled $3.62 billion from U.S. stock funds in the latest week, the most in 10 weeks after taking a neutral stance the prior week.

But demand for emerging market equities remained strong, with investors putting $1.81 billion in new cash into stock funds, the fund-tracking firm said.


In the commodity markets, traders played catch-up after a week-long holiday last week in China, the world's second biggest consumer of many raw materials, which had kept activity subdued, with worries about the economic outlook weighing on sentiment.

Copper, for which China is the world's largest consumer, dipped to a near three-week low at $8,125.25 a metric ton (1.1023 tons) on the London futures market. Benchmark tin and nickel also touched three-week lows.

Gold managed to edge away from six-month lows as jewelers in China returned to the physical market after the Lunar New Year holiday but a lack of demand from U.S. markets saw the precious metal slip back to be down 0.1 percent to $1,607.06 an ounce.

Crude oil markets were mostly steady after the weak U.S. industrial production data on Friday [ID:nL1N0BF44A] was seen dampening demand, while tensions in the Middle East lent some support.

"We continue to see a mixed picture out of the United States. Industry output was lower than expected but that shouldn't affect the general upward direction," Olivier Jakob, analyst at Geneva-based Petromatrix, said.

Brent crude was down 20 cents at $117.46 a barrel after posting its first weekly loss since the first half of January. U.S. crude slipped 24 cents to $95.62.

(Additional reporting by Marius Zaharia and Ron Bousso; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Alastair Macdonald)

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Florida hit by "tsunami" of tax identity fraud

MIAMI (Reuters) - Bruce Parton was only a few weeks from retirement after 30 years as a mail carrier in sunny Florida.

He never lived to fulfill his retirement plan of moving back to a quiet life in the Catskill mountains of New York, not far from where he grew up on Long Island.

Instead, he was gunned down on his daily mail route in December 2010 by members of an identity theft ring who stole his master key as part of a scheme to claim fraudulent tax refunds.

Using stolen names and Social Security numbers, criminals are filing phony electronic tax forms to claim refunds, exploiting a slow-moving federal bureaucracy to collect the money before victims, or the Internal Revenue Service, discover the fraud.

Parton was a victim of what officials say has ballooned into a massive, and dangerous, illegal industry that could cost the nation $21 billion over the next five years, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

While that is a relatively small sum compared to the $1.1 trillion collected from individual tax payers in the last fiscal year, the crime has been growing by leaps and bounds in the last three years.

"We are on the top of a national trend that is causing a hemorrhage of tax dollars," said Wifredo Ferrer, United States Attorney for south Florida. "It's a tsunami of fraud."

While the IRS says it has detected cases in every state except North Dakota and West Virginia, the fraud's epicenter is Florida, and it is mostly concentrated in Miami and Tampa.

Miami has 46 times the per-capita rate of false tax refund claims than the rest of the country, and 70 times the national average in dollar terms, Ferrer told Reuters.

"For whatever reason, we always tend to lead the nation when it comes to fraud," he said, noting that his office has been battling massive Medicare fraud in recent years that has since spread to other parts of the country.

Florida's high proportion of older residents, who can be more vulnerable to fraud, may be one reason for the high levels of fraud in the state.

Nationwide, the number of cases of tax identity theft detected by authorities sky-rocketed to more than 1.2 million cases in 2012 from only 48,000 in 2008, according to the Treasury Department.

The real number of phony tax filings is likely much higher as the fraud is hard to track, according to a November General Accountability Office report.


The tax ID theft problem is particularly troubling as, unlike Medicare fraud, it is associated with violent crime and armed gangs.

Tampa police first detected it in 2010 when officers discovered wanted street criminals engaged in tax fraud. "They were holed up in hotels with laptops churning out tax claims," said congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents the area and is pressing the IRS to get tougher on the fraud.

When agents raided a Howard Johnson in East Tampa in late 2010, they found suspects smoking marijuana and four laptop computers being used to file fraudulent tax returns on Turbo Tax, the tax preparation software, according to police records.

The suspects had lists of personal information containing more than 1,000 names and confidential personal information, multiple re-loadable debit cards, and records of numerous financial transactions. The investigation revealed that the suspects had been camped out in the hotel room for more than a week filing claims.

Tax identity fraudsters are apparently drawn by the ease of the crime, officials say.

"The scheme is very basic, it works virtually the same in almost every case," said Ferrer. "All they need is your name and the tax ID number."

Armed with that information a refund claim can be filed electronically, making up other details on the form, including addresses, employer data, income and deductions.

Criminals obtain the vital numbers using various tactics, often by bribing office workers with access to personnel files inside companies, as well as large public institutions such as hospitals and schools, according to prosecutors.

Last summer a hacker stole 3.8 million unencrypted tax records from the South Carolina Department of Revenue in what is believed to be the largest security breach of a U.S. tax agency. Authorities say they do not know the hacker's motive.

One North Miami man, Rodney Saint Fleur, was charged last year with using the LexisNexis research service account at the law firm where he worked to access names and Social Security numbers of 26,000 people as part of an identity theft scheme, according to court documents.

Victims in Florida have varied from hospital patients, to Holocaust survivors at an elderly Jewish community center, as well as active duty military serving overseas.

In December, a former U.S. Marine from North Miami was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for stealing the identities of more than 40 fellow Marines stationed at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan as part of a plot to claim $54,000 in fraudulent income-tax refunds.

In Parton's case the criminals were after his master key that gives postal workers access to mail drop-off boxes and apartment mailboxes. He was shot twice in the chest by a gunman as part of a plot to steal identities in people's mail for tax refund fraud.

The gunman, Pikerson Mentor, 31, was sentenced last month to life plus 42 years.

More than 600 people turned up for Parton's funeral, including postal workers and people who got to know him on his route. "He had been doing that mail route for 10 years and he always had a smile for everyone," said his daughter, Nina Parton.

The criminals stay under the radar using identities of the elderly or the very young, who are unlikely to be filing for earned income, as well as the deceased. They typically claim small refunds, around $3,000, but use multiple identities, with payments often made to pre-paid debit cards.


The IRS said last week it is intensifying a crackdown on identify theft, with 3,000 agents devoted to tackling the problem, double the number assigned in 2011.

The number of IRS criminal investigations into identity theft more than tripled in the year to September 2012, and it was on pace to double again this year, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told reporters.

The tax collection agency prevented $20 billion in attempted tax refund fraud in fiscal year 2012, up from $14 billion a year earlier, he said.

"It's one of the biggest challenges that faces the IRS today," Miller said. "We're doing much better on all fronts but we have much more to do."

Despite the increase in investigations, the agency still had a backlog of 300,000 cases of people waiting for legitimate refunds after they were victims of fraud. It takes an average of six months to resolve a case, Miller said.

"The IRS have put a lot of resources on it, but they always seem to be behind the curve," said Keith Fogg, a tax professor at Villanova University School of Law.

Electronic filing, which now accounts for 80 percent of returns and was introduced to speed up delivery of refunds, has made the system more vulnerable to fraud.

The IRS is seeking to speed up the loading of data from W-2 payroll forms issued at the beginning of the tax season, a time lapse which gives fraudsters a window of opportunity to file using false data.

The IRS is also looking for ways to authenticate the identity of tax filers at the time of filing to pre-empt fraud, as well as working with the Social Security Administration to limit access to a registry of social security data of deceased tax payers, the so-called "Death Master File", a frequent target of fraud.

"We will not be prosecuting our way out of this. That's not going to be the answer. We're going to have to make it more and more difficult for criminals to profit from this behavior," said Miller. "If they're not successful they will move onto something else."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Claudia Parsons)

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G20 steps back from currency brink, heat off Japan

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Group of 20 nations declared on Saturday there would be no currency war and deferred plans to set new debt-cutting targets, underlining broad concern about the fragile state of the world economy.

Japan's expansive policies, which have driven down the yen, escaped direct criticism in a statement thrashed out in Moscow by policymakers from the G20, which spans developed and emerging markets and accounts for 90 percent of the world economy.

Analysts said the yen, which has dropped 20 percent as a result of aggressive monetary and fiscal policies to reflate the Japanese economy, may now continue to fall.

"The market will take the G20 statement as an approval for what it has been doing -- selling of the yen," said Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon in London. "No censure of Japan means they will be off to the money printing presses."

After late-night talks, finance ministers and central bankers agreed on wording closer than expected to a joint statement issued last Tuesday by the Group of Seven rich nations backing market-determined exchange rates.

A draft communiqué on Friday had steered clear of the G7's call for economic policy not to be targeted at exchange rates. But the final version included a G20 commitment to refrain from competitive devaluations and stated monetary policy would be directed only at price stability and growth.

"The mood quite clearly early on was that we needed desperately to avoid protectionist measures ... that mood permeated quite quickly," Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty told reporters, adding that the wording of the G20 statement had been hardened up by the ministers.

As a result, it reflected a substantial, but not complete, endorsement of Tuesday's proclamation by the G7 nations - the United States, Japan, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy.

As with the G7 intervention, Tokyo said it gave it a green light to pursue its policies unchecked.

"I have explained that (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe's administration is doing its utmost to escape from deflation and we have gained a certain understanding," Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters.

"We're confident that if Japan revives its own economy that would certainly affect the world economy as well. We gained understanding on this point."

Flaherty admitted it would be difficult to gauge if domestic policies were aimed at weakening currencies or not.


The G20 also made a commitment to a credible medium-term fiscal strategy, but stopped short of setting specific goals as most delegations felt any economic recovery was too fragile.

The communiqué said risks to the world economy had receded but growth remained too weak and unemployment too high.

"A sustained effort is required to continue building a stronger economic and monetary union in the euro area and to resolve uncertainties related to the fiscal situation in the United States and Japan, as well as to boost domestic sources of growth in surplus economies," it said.

A debt-cutting pact struck in Toronto in 2010 will expire this year if leaders fail to agree to extend it at a G20 summit of leaders in St Petersburg in September.

The United States says it is on track to meet its Toronto pledge but argues that the pace of future fiscal consolidation must not snuff out demand. Germany and others are pressing for another round of binding debt targets.

"We had a broad consensus in the G20 that we will stick to the commitment to fulfill the Toronto goals," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said. "We do not have any interest in U.S.-bashing ... In St. Petersburg follow-up-goals will be decided."

The G20 put together a huge financial backstop to halt a market meltdown in 2009 but has failed to reach those heights since. At successive meetings, Germany has pressed the United States and others to do more to tackle their debts. Washington in turn has urged Berlin to do more to increase demand.

Backing in the communiqué for the use of domestic monetary policy to support economic recovery reflected the U.S. Federal Reserve's commitment to monetary stimulus through quantitative easing, or QE, to promote recovery and jobs.

QE entails large-scale bond buying -- $85 billion a month in the Fed's case -- that helps economic growth but has also unleashed destabilising capital flows into emerging markets.

A commitment to minimize such "negative spillovers" was an offsetting point in the text that China, fearful of asset bubbles and lost export competitiveness, highlighted.

"Major developed nations (should) pay attention to their monetary policy spillover," Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao was quoted by state news agency Xinhua as saying in Moscow.

Russia, this year's chair of the G20, admitted the group had failed to reach agreement on medium-term budget deficit levels and expressed concern about ultra-loose policies that it and other emerging economies say could store up trouble for later.

On currencies, the G20 text reiterated its commitment last November, "to move more rapidly toward mores market-determined exchange rate systems and exchange rate flexibility to reflect underlying fundamentals, and avoid persistent exchange rate misalignments".

It said disorderly exchange rate movements and excess volatility in financial flows could harm economic and financial stability.

(Additional reporting by Gernot Heller, Lesley Wroughton, Maya Dyakina, Tetsushi Kajimoto, Jan Strupczewski, Lidia Kelly, Katya Golubkova, Jason Bush, Anirban Nag and Michael Martina. Writing by Douglas Busvine. Editing by Timothy Heritage/Mike Peacock)

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Wall Street flat after data, S&P on pace for seventh weekly gain

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged lower on Friday as equities continued a phase of consolidation after a strong start to the year but the seven-week winning streak for the S&P 500 remained intact.

The S&P 500, up nearly 7 percent so far this year, is facing strong technical resistance near the 1,525 level. But investors, expecting the index to advance further in the quarter, have held back from locking in profits.

"It looks like a little bit of profit taking, normal consolidation after a big run and maybe we might be seeing the first signs of nervousness ahead of the sequestration debate that will most likely starting up when Congress comes back," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

The "sequestration" - automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight - are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree to an alternative.

Data released Friday illustrated the bumpy road the U.S. economic recovery continues to take.

The New York Federal Reserve said manufacturing in New York state expanded for the first time in seven months, while Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading of consumer sentiment rose from the prior month and beat expectations.

But U.S. manufacturing fell in January after a rise in the prior month.

"We are at a point where the macro news will continue to be a two-steps forward, one-step back kind of progression, with most of the news showing a firmness, but an occasional data point that will represent a step back," Jim Russell, senior equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Cincinnati.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 6.64 points, or 0.05 percent, to 13,966.75. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> shed 1.35 points, or 0.09 percent, to 1,520.03. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> lost 1.77 points, or 0.06 percent, to 3,196.89.

The benchmark S&P 500 is up 0.13 percent for the week and is on track to register its seventh straight week of gains by the close of trading Friday, a feat not seen since a run of consecutive weekly gains between December 2010 and January 2011.

A surge in merger and acquisition activity, with more than $158 billion in deals announced so far in 2013, has given further support to the equity market as it points to healthy valuations and bets on the economic outlook.

Herbalife shares pared earlier gains and were up 7.1 percent to $41, a day after billionaire investor Carl Icahn said in a regulatory filing that he now owns 13 percent of Herbalife and was ready to put it in play.

MeadWestvaco Corp climbed 9.8 percent to $34.77 as the biggest percentage gainer on the S&P index after activist investor Nelson Peltz's Trian Fund Management LP said in an SEC filing it had bought about 1.6 million shares of the packaging company.

Burger King Worldwide shares gained 2.5 percent to $17 after it beat estimates with a 94 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit, thanks to new menu additions.

Oil service stocks declined, weighed by a 5.5 percent drop in shares of Transocean to $56.05, after the rig contractor reported its fleet update and Deutsche Bank cut its rating on the stock to "sell." The PHLX oil service sector <.osx> lost 1.7 percent.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)

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Wall Street flat as takeovers offset weak overseas data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Thursday as a flurry of merger deals and better-than-expected jobs data offset signs of economic weakness in Europe and Japan

Shares of H.J. Heinz Co jumped 20 percent to $72.51 after it said Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital will buy the food company for $72.50 a share, or $28 billion including debt.

Also supporting the market was data showing the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected in the latest week.

Stocks fell earlier after a report the euro zone's gross domestic product contracted by the steepest amount since the first quarter of 2009. In addition, Japan's GDP shrank 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter, crushing expectations of a modest return to growth.

"The only reason a company buys another company is because they see an upside. Even though we are at multiyear highs, this kind of activity shows that there is more room for a rally, feeding optimism to the market," said Randy Frederick, director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab.

But Frederick added the market would have to see small corrections before breaking above current levels, where indexes have been hovering for almost two weeks. The S&P 500 is up more than 6 percent so far this year, near its highest level since November 2007.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 13.75 points, or 0.10 percent, at 13,969.16. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 0.45 point, or 0.03 percent, at 1,519.88. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 1.35 points, or 0.04 percent, at 3,195.53.

Constellation Brands soared more than 35 percent to $43.20 after terms of its takeover of Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo were revised, granting it perpetual rights to distribute Corona and other Modelo brands in the United States. AB InBev ADRs gained 5.5 percent to $93.08.

American Airlines and US Airways Group said they plan to merge in a deal that will form the world's biggest air carrier, with an equity valuation of about $11 billion. US Airways shares fell 6.8 percent to $13.67.

Weakness in Europe contributed to a 5 percent drop in revenue from the region for Cisco Systems , which nonetheless beat estimates as it reported its results late Wednesday. The company's shares slid 1.4 percent to $20.85.

General Motors Co reported a weaker-than-expected fourth-quarter profit, also citing bigger losses in Europe alongside lower prices in its core North American market. The stock was off 1.7 percent at $28.19.

(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)

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Wall Street flat, S&P 500 touches November 2007 high

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Wednesday after the S&P 500 index hit a November 2007 intraday high, but volume was low and investors stayed cautious with indexes near multi-year closing highs.

The benchmark index got a boost from Comcast Corp when the cable company said it will buy the rest of NBC Universal for $16.7 billion from General Electric Co .

Equities have been strong performers until recently, buoyed largely by healthy growth in corporate earnings, which helped the S&P 500 to rise 6.5 percent so far this year. The Dow industrials are about 1 percent away from an all-time intraday high, reached in October 2007.

Those gains could leave the market vulnerable to a pullback as investors take profits amid a dearth of new catalysts. While analysts see an upward bias in stocks, recent daily moves have been small and trading volumes light with indexes at multi-year highs.

"I was expecting a 12-15 percent return on the S&P for the whole year of 2013, and we have done about half of that in just 5-6 weeks," said Jack De Gan, principal at Harbor Advisory in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

"We will hit resistance, but the fundamentals and micro picture are looking good, so if there is a correction it's going to be a brief one."

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 52.99 points, or 0.38 percent, at 13,965.71. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 0.61 points, or 0.04 percent, at 1,518.82. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 3.35 points, or 0.11 percent, at 3,189.85.

Economic data proved no catalyst giving investors direction. The government said retail sales rose 0.1 percent in January, as expected. Tax increases and higher gasoline prices restrained spending.

The S&P 500 was well over its 50-day moving average of 1,460.92, a sign the market could be overbought.

Comcast agreed late Tuesday to buy General Electric Co's remaining 49 percent stake in NBC Universal for $16.7 billion. Comcast jumped 6.2 percent to $41.40 as the S&P's top percentage gainer while Dow component GE was up 3 percent to $23.26.

Deere & Co reported earnings that beat expectations and raised its full-year profit outlook. After initially rallying in premarket trading, the stock fell 2.3 percent to $91.80.

According to the latest Thomson Reuters data, of the 353 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 70.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, above a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.3 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Industrial and construction shares were lower even though in his State of the Union address President Barack Obama called for $50 billion in spending to create jobs by rebuilding degraded roads and bridges.

The Dow Jones Home Construction index <.djushb> was off 0.2 percent.

(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Wall Street pauses after gains, awaits Obama address

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Tuesday, with the S&P 500 holding near multi-year highs ahead of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

The economy will be a major topic of Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress set for 9 p.m. (0200 GMT Wednesday). Investors will listen for any clues on a deal with Republicans to avert automatic spending cuts due to take effect March 1.

The S&P 500 has risen in the past six weeks and is up 6.5 percent so far this year. But gains have been harder to come by since the benchmark S&P index hit a five-year high on February 1. The market has to consolidate strong gains at the year's start while investors search for reasons to drive stocks higher.

"The market itself at this point has got to digest this six-plus percentage point move ... we are due for that pause," said Drew Nordlicht, managing director at HighTower Advisors in San Diego.

Investors are "looking for more data at this point going forward to support the thesis that corporate profits will continue to grow and the economy has turned the corner."

The White House has signaled Obama in his speech will urge U.S. investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, clean energy and education. He is also expected to call for comprehensive trade talks with the European Union.

With earnings season moving to its latter stages, of the 353 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings, 70.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, above a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters according to Thomson Reuters data through Tuesday morning.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.3 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 27.65 points, or 0.20 percent, to 13,998.89. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> added 1.03 points, or 0.07 percent, to 1,518.04. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> dipped 1.60 points, or 0.05 percent, to 3,190.41.

Coca-Cola Co shares fell 1.9 percent to $37.88 and were the biggest drag on the Dow after the world's largest soft drink maker reported quarterly revenue slightly below analysts' estimates, hurt by a weaker-than-expected performance in Europe.

Housing shares climbed, led by a 12.9 percent jump in Masco Corp to $20.09 after the home improvement product maker posted fourth-quarter earnings and said it expects new home construction to show strong growth in 2013. The PHLX housing sector index <.hgx> gained 2.7 percent.

Avon Products shares surged 16.7 percent to $20.16 after the beauty products company reported a better-than-expected quarterly profit.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber shares lost 3.1 percent to $13.48 after it posted a stronger-than-expected quarterly profit but cut its 2013 forecast due to weakness in the European automotive market.

Michael Kors Holdings shares jumped 10.9 percent to $63.24 after the fashion company handily beat Wall Street's estimates and raised its full-year outlook.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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Wall Street flat near highs as investors seek catalysts

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were little changed on Monday as investors scrambled to find catalysts to move the market higher after a six-weeks-long advance that has taken the S&P 500 index near record highs.

The benchmark index is up more than 6 percent so far this year after a steep rally in January that has stalled as the S&P and Dow industrials near multiyear highs.

Trading volume was relatively low, which could make the market volatile and exaggerate moves.

Google Inc shares fell 0.9 percent at $777.94 after the company said in a filing former chief executive Eric Schmidt is selling roughly 42 percent of his Google stake, a move that could potentially net him $2.51 billion.

But the decline was offset by gains in Apple , up 1.8 percent at $483.68 after a New York Times report that the iPhone maker is experimenting with the design of a device similar to a wristwatch.

"It's really the valuation and indications that the economy is improving that have pushed the market higher. We would have to see a probable correction before heading higher and that could come from weak economic data in the future," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer at Solaris Asset Management.

No economic data or major earnings reports are scheduled for Monday, but Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen is due to speak about the economic recovery at 1 p.m. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will describe his plan for spurring the economy in his State of the Union address. He is expected to offer proposals for investment in infrastructure, manufacturing, clean energy and education.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was down 18.09 points, or 0.13 percent, at 13,974.88. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was down 0.71 point, or 0.05 percent, at 1,517.22. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was down 2.32 points, or 0.07 percent, at 3,191.55.

Upbeat U.S. and Chinese data last week helped the S&P 500 extend its weekly winning streak to six.

Opposition has grown to the $24.4 billion buyout of Dell Inc , the No. 3 personal computer maker, as three of the largest investors joined Southeastern Asset Management on Friday in raising objections. Dell said in a regulatory filing it had considered many strategic options before opting to go private in a buyout led by Chief Executive Michael Dell.

Dell shares hovered near $13.65, the buyout offer price.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc shares jumped 3.9 percent at $172.39 after it said longtime drug development partner Sanofi plans to boost its stake in Regeneron by open market purchases of its stock.

(Reporting By Angela Moon)

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Analysis: Accounting risk clouds big U.S. business bets in China

NEW YORK/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tales of shady business practices abound in China - fake revenues, phony invoices, sham factories - but until recently, the problem seemed confined mostly to Chinese companies.

No longer.

Concern is growing about risks to U.S.-based multinationals in a country where American audit regulators are locked out by the Chinese government and bribery and fraud are routine.

Questions about transparency and integrity weigh heavily on China, the world's second-largest economy, as it assumes greater economic leadership and responsibility. These doubts test its ability to adhere to international standards.

Stories of business deception - confirmed by corporate sleuths, former business executives, court filings and experts on accounting in China - are commonplace.

There was the Chinese company that billed itself as a high-tech television screen manufacturer, but had a factory that turned out to be a man selling fireworks from a shack.

Or there was the Chinese biodiesel plant that sat idle for months, then sprang to life one day - when investors showed up for a tour - only to fall silent again.

Last month, there was the scandal at a Chinese unit of Caterpillar Inc , the world's largest construction equipment manufacturer, based in Peoria, Illinois.

On January 18, Caterpillar disclosed "deliberate, multi-year, coordinated accounting misconduct" at the Siwei unit of ERA Mining Machinery. Caterpillar said it would write off most of the $654 million it had paid to acquire ERA only months earlier.

Caterpillar's Siwei stumble was not the first for a U.S. multinational in China, but the scope of the problem stood out.

Caterpillar has provided few details, but it has disclosed inventory discrepancies, inflated profits and improperly recorded costs and revenue at Siwei.

Caterpillar declined further comment.

Part of Caterpillar's problem may have been inadequate due diligence work prior to the ERA acquisition. Companies often try to keep fees down for this type of work, but in China that may be asking for trouble, says Paul Gillis, an accounting professor at Peking University in Beijing.

Acquiring firms typically do some of their own due diligence while also relying on deal advisers, legal experts and auditors. Due to the risks in China, efforts should be beefed up to uncover fraud, Gillis said. "When you start cutting corners on audits ... you're enabling those who commit fraud."


Of course, it is not as if the United States has not had its own share of egregious accounting frauds over the years. In 2001-2002, a series of major scandals involving the likes of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco shook the U.S. economy.

Legislation followed that strengthened oversight of auditing and accountability of companies' top officers. That has not stopped U.S. accounting fraud, but it has made it easier to identify and deter some of the most egregious behavior.

In China, where large U.S. corporations are making some very big bets, a new frontier of accounting risk is opening up.

Lured by an economy growing much more quickly than the United States, U.S. companies have directly invested $54 billion in Chinese businesses, factories and property, most of it in the past decade, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data.

Despite a cooling off of China's growth last year, demand from its massive consumer class is still lifting revenues at companies that range from coffee seller Starbucks Corp to casino operator Wynn Resorts .

The Caterpillar experience and the growing catalog of smaller instances of deception and abuse have some experts wondering if U.S. companies' Chinese results can be trusted.

Though China is shifting to a market economy, much business is still done on a handshake, China experts say. State secret laws hinder investigations by outsiders. Audits done in China of U.S. corporate units there cannot be inspected by U.S. regulators because the Chinese government refuses to allow them.

A former executive at a large, U.S.-based multinational active in China recalled the firm's auditor being fired for trying to correct improper accounting at a joint venture in China. Managers there were trying to book sales early, sometimes for unassembled products, to avoid a coming tax increase, said the executive, who asked not to be named. He said he had the auditor reinstated and the accounting changed.

Dealings with a Chinese joint venture did not end well for California-based RAE Systems Inc, which makes chemical detection monitors. It had to pay nearly $3 million to the U.S. government to settle complaints in 2010 that it did too little to stop bribery at a Chinese joint venture.


Despite well-known risks in China, auditors there often are not inquisitive enough or alert to possible fraud, some experts say.

Auditors in China may pore tirelessly over documents and yet "fail to spot the red Ferrari parked on the doorstep and fail to ask who it belongs to, how it was paid for," said Peter Humphrey, founder of ChinaWhys, a Shanghai-based anti-fraud consultancy that has investigated white-collar crime and fraud at scores of multinational firms in China.

China experts said it is difficult to do business there without encountering demands for gifts or kickbacks.

Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, surveyed business executives who said Chinese firms in 2011 were second only to Russian companies in being most likely to pay bribes abroad.

But six U.S. companies, including technology group IBM and drugmaker Pfizer Inc , were charged by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over the past two years for improper payments or gifts in China.

Retailer Wal-Mart Stores has said it is investigating allegations of bribery in China, among other countries, and cosmetics group Avon Products Inc is dealing with probes of possible bribery in China.

There have been plenty of other red flags. For example, U.S. regulators have deregistered dozens of Chinese companies listed on U.S. exchanges after fraud probes, and some major U.S. investors have been caught flat-footed.

Billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson suffered big losses after a disastrous bet on Chinese forestry company Sino Forest. Sino Forest was rocked by allegations in 2011 that it falsified its timber assets and later filed for bankruptcy.

Chinese software company Longtop Financial Technologies was accused of seizing audit documents when its auditor, Shanghai-based Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, tried to double-check cash amounts at the company's bank. Longtop admitted cash had been faked. It was deregistered by the SEC.

The U.S. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which is responsible for regulating auditors of U.S.-listed companies, has been trying to get access to China to inspect audits there. But China has resisted because of sovereignty concerns.

Being unable to inspect in China "continues to create a gaping hole in investor protection," James Doty, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based PCAOB, said in a statement.

The PCAOB recently reached deals with France and Finland to inspect in those countries, adding to its growing list of cooperation agreements with 16 nations.

The SEC has hit a wall trying to get documents out of China to investigate fraud. In December the commission began legal proceedings against the Chinese affiliates of five of the world's biggest audit firms - Deloitte , Ernst & Young , KPMG BDO and PricewaterhouseCoopers - over their refusal to turn over audit papers for fear of violating state secrets laws.

Meanwhile, investment in China continues. Over the past five years, U.S. companies and investment groups have announced or completed about $25 billion of whole or partial acquisitions in China, according to Thomson Reuters data.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Ernest Scheyder in New York, Clare Baldwin in Hong Kong; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Dan Grebler)

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Stocks end higher for sixth straight week, tech leads

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Nasdaq composite stock index closed at a 12-year high and the S&P 500 index at a five-year high, boosted by gains in technology shares and stronger overseas trade figures.

The S&P 500 also posted a sixth straight week of gains for the first time since August.

The technology sector led the day's gains, with the S&P 500 technology index <.splrct> up 1.0 percent. Gains in professional network platform LinkedIn Corp and AOL Inc after they reported quarterly results helped the sector.

Shares of LinkedIn jumped 21.3 percent to $150.48 after the social networking site announced strong quarterly profits and gave a bullish forecast for the year.

AOL Inc shares rose 7.4 percent to $33.72 after the online company reported higher quarterly profit, boosted by a 13 percent rise in advertising sales.

Data showed Chinese exports grew more than expected, a positive sign for the global economy. The U.S. trade deficit narrowed in December, suggesting the U.S. economy likely grew in the fourth quarter instead of contracting slightly as originally reported by the U.S. government.

"That may have sent a ray of optimism," said Fred Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Trading volume on Friday was below average for the week as a blizzard swept into the northeastern United States.

The U.S. stock market has posted strong gains since the start of the year, with the S&P 500 up 6.4 percent since December 31. The advance has slowed in recent days, with fourth-quarter earnings winding down and few incentives to continue the rally on the horizon.

"I think we're in the middle of a trading range and I'd put plus or minus 5.0 percent around it. Fundamental factors are best described as neutral," Dickson said.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> ended up 48.92 points, or 0.35 percent, at 13,992.97. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 8.54 points, or 0.57 percent, at 1,517.93. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 28.74 points, or 0.91 percent, at 3,193.87, its highest closing level since November 2000.

For the week, the Dow was down 0.1 percent, the S&P 500 was up 0.3 percent and the Nasdaq up 0.5 percent.

Shares of Dell closed at $13.63, up 0.7 percent, after briefly trading above a buyout offering price of $13.65 during the session.

Dell's largest independent shareholder, Southeastern Asset Management, said it plans to oppose the buyout of the personal computer maker, setting up a battle for founder Michael Dell.

Signs of economic strength overseas buoyed sentiment on Wall Street. Chinese exports grew more than expected in January, while imports climbed 28.8 percent, highlighting robust domestic demand. German data showed a 2012 surplus that was the nation's second highest in more than 60 years, an indication of the underlying strength of Europe's biggest economy.

Separately, U.S. economic data showed the trade deficit shrank in December to $38.5 billion, its narrowest in nearly three years, indicating the economy did much better in the fourth quarter than initially estimated.

Earnings have mostly come in stronger than expected since the start of the reporting period. Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies now are estimated up 5.2 percent versus a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters data. That contrasts with a 1.9 percent growth forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Molina Healthcare Inc surged 10.4 percent to $31.88 as the biggest boost to the index after posting fourth-quarter earnings.

The CBOE Volatility index <.vix>, Wall Street's so-called fear gauge, was down 3.6 percent at 13.02. The gauge, a key measure of market expectations of short-term volatility, generally moves inversely to the S&P 500.

"I'm watching the 14 level closely" on the CBOE Volatility index, said Bryan Sapp, senior trading analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "The break below it at the beginning of the year signaled the sharp rally in January, and a rally back above it could be a sign to exercise some caution."

Volume was roughly 5.6 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the NYSE MKT, compared with the 2012 average daily closing volume of about 6.45 billion.

Advancers outpaced decliners on the NYSE by nearly 2 to 1 and on the Nasdaq by almost 5 to 3.

(Additional reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Nick Zieminski, Kenneth Barry and Andrew Hay)

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Market rises on data but caution settles on Wall Street

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks edged higher on Friday, with the benchmark S&P index hitting a five-year high after a batch of positive economic reports, but gains were capped as investors grew cautious about a further advance.

Data showing stronger international trade from China and Germany and a report showing a smaller U.S. trade deficit in December were seen as encouraging signs of global demand.

Among stocks on the rise, the technology sector was boosted by gains in LinkedIn Corp and AOL Inc following their quarterly results.

The S&P 500 <.spx>, up 6.3 percent for the year, is on track for six straight weeks of gains. But the index has found it tougher to climb in recent days as investors await strong trading incentives to drive it further upward.

"We are going to have this churn and this consolidation, which actually isn't a bad thing," said Ken Polcari, director of the NYSE floor division at O'Neil Securities in New York.

The market is building a base by consolidating and showing less volatility, he said.

"If it builds a base, from there it is easier to make the argument that you move ahead," Polcari said.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> was up 34.83 points, or 0.25 percent, at 13,978.88. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> was up 6.06 points, or 0.40 percent, at 1,515.45. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> was up 25.90 points, or 0.82 percent, at 3,191.04.

The CBOE Volatility index <.vix>, Wall Street's so-called fear gauge, was down 4.2 percent at 12.94. The gauge generally moves inversely to the S&P 500.

Still, there were concerns whether the market would stride higher.

"I'm watching the 14 level closely. The break below it at the beginning of the year signaled the sharp rally in January, and a rally back above it could be a sign to exercise some caution," said Bryan Sapp, senior trading analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research.

Healthcare stocks also performed well. The Morgan Stanley healthcare payor index <.hmo> was up 2.3 percent. Molina Healthcare Inc surged 9.7 percent to $31.67 as the biggest boost to the index after posting fourth-quarter earnings.

McDonald's Corp said January sales at established hamburger restaurants around the world fell 1.9 percent, a steeper decline than analysts had expected. Still, shares edged up 0.7 percent to $95.31.

Data showed Chinese exports grew more than expected in January, while imports climbed 28.8 percent, highlighting robust domestic demand, while German data showed a 2012 surplus that was the nation's second highest in more than 60 years, an indication of the underlying strength of Europe's biggest economy.

Another positive sign was U.S. economic data which showed the trade deficit shrank in December to $38.5 billion, its narrowest in nearly three years, indicating the economy did much better in the fourth quarter than initially estimated.

Shares of LinkedIn jumped 18.8 percent to $147.40 after announcing quarterly profits and giving a bullish forecast for the year.

AOL Inc shares also jumped 7 percent to $33.60 after the online company said its quarterly profit had jumped, boosted by a 13 percent rise in advertising sales.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Friday morning, of 339 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings, 69.9 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, above a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies grew 5.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

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